Cuba on a shoestring

Snow. But it’s spring! Sigh.

I was lucky this year; I was able to visit Cuba for the first time. Wanting to escape this frozen city, I thought leaving in late March would be timely enough to come back to spring. Instead, I got back to fake spring…you know… when you get a warm day or two and then it snows? Fake spring. Or Winnipeg’s cruel idea of an April Fool’s Day Month joke.

To beat those winter blues (or in our case, spring blues) you need a getaway. A tropical, sun-filled, exotic getaway. If budget is an issue, then WPL has everything you need to visit Cuba as an armchair traveler. Here’s how to plan your adventure.

You know you are in Cuba when you see cars from the 50’s driving by. Locals do everything they can to keep them running since new cars are beyond the affordability of everyone except the government, the military and the diplomats. We hired a local company and were picked up in style in a 1950 Chevrolet Styleline. Herminio, our chauffeur (and also a welder, electrician, upholsterer, painter and mechanical engineer) explained to us that he and his Dad had replaced the motor with a diesel one, used Hyundai parts to keep it running and installed an air conditioner in the grill and a GPS on the dashboard. To get a visual of the Cuban surroundings, borrow Cars of the Fantastic 50’s.

A holiday is not a holiday without some Cuban Cocktails. Rum is the spirit of choice and there are two popular local varieties: Havana Club and the pricier Santiago de Cuba. They come in a variety of flavours and colors which range from clear to a rich chocolaty brown. Our tour guide Adita (and also a university professor of foreign languages) tells me that each one is used for different cocktails; the clear rum is best for mojitos, the buttery 3 year rum is used for piňa colatas and the caramel 5 year old rum is used for Cuba librés (essentially a rum and coke with a twist of lime). The 7 year old rum is best for sipping straight – it’s the good stuff!

But don’t drink on an empty stomach. Cuban food is simple but tasty and easily re-creatable here at home with some of our recipe books like The Cuban Table. Adita and Herminio brought us to the most wonderful local restaurant in Matanzas, the Bella Vista where we had a table for two on the edge of the bay. The main plates were a large portion of meat: we chose from lobster, shrimp, fish or chicken. Side dishes consisted of white rice or rice and beans. My favorite take-away was how Cubans serve their salad. A large plate of veggies arrived: shredded cabbage, carrots and lettuce, chopped onions, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, beans and pickled beets along with two bottles, one of oil and one of balsamic vinegar. So simple, yet delicious!

But what about the beach? Sure Varadero is gorgeous, blue skies and white sand, but a day at Grand Beach in midsummer is comparable. I know, it’s fake spring and the hot weather is a distant memory.

Until then, you can get the scenery of Cuba by immersing yourself in some photographic books like Havana History and Architecture of a Romantic City . Or install a Varadero screensaver to warm your heart and avoid looking out our own desolate windows as we wait for our glorious summer.

But perhaps you need more than photos. Dive into Cuban culture by reading fiction from some of the local authors. In the Cuban episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain interviewed Leonardo Padura who is known for his mysteries set in Havana. You could also delve into the novels of José Latour who decided to write in English after being labeled an “enemy of the people” by the Cuban government. If you prefer something more classic, The Old Man and the Sea is a good choice as Hemmingway wrote it while he was living there.  Need something more political? You might enjoy a graphic novel about Castro or a biography about Che. Statues of Jose Marti are everywhere in Cuba since he is considered a national hero. We viewed one where he is biting a sword to depict his ability to cut with words; you might appreciate his Selected Works.

Or you could decide to host a Cuban party instead. Entertain your guests with some hot Cuban music! Grab some cd’s from WPL’s collection of Cuban musicians: Buena Vista Social Club, José Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Ernesto Lecuona, Chachao or Manuel Mirabal Vazquez. Surround yourself with the beautiful Spanish language! In fact, learn some Spanish with our help; WPL has an info guide with dozens of resources. I downloaded the DuoLingo app and managed to learn common phrases, how to order in a restaurant, get around at the airport and ask simple questions (Dondé es el baňo?).

Your trip to Cuba on a shoestring would not be complete without a Cuban cigar. If you don’t smoke, you can enjoy a short documentary called With a Stroke of Chaveta on our Kanopy app. It takes you into the world of tabaqueros who cannot imagine working, rolling cigars, in the factory without someone reading to them. Those Cubans, so literate! They actually have one of the highest rates of literacy in the world.

So, we may skip from winter to summer this year, but we can enjoy the beauty, flavours, sounds and sights of Cuba with a simple trip to the library. No budget required.

-Colette

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